Mother With Leukemia: “My Daughter Was My Will To Fight”

Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a young mother spent 11 days in a coma and was given only a small chance of survival. Today she credits doctors at IU Health Simon Cancer Center for her path to recovery.

Jennifer Wright looks at the picture of her young daughter – dressed like a ballerina, and remembers the moment like it was yesterday.  The picture of the mother and daughter means more today than it did back then. It was taken on Mother’s Day three years ago – the day before Wright received a stem cell transplant.

Wright’s eyes moisten as she sits in a room at Simon Cancer Center waiting for a recent check up with oncology specialist Dr. Sherif Farag. Wright holds her daughter, Cambria, now four as she listens to the doctor speak words at one time she doubted she would ever hear.

“She’s doing really well. She’s in remission of high risk leukemia and the risk of relapse after three years is very low,” said Dr. Farag. “She is a successful case.” It will be another three months before Wright returns to Simon Cancer Center for a follow up visit. That alone is something she considers a miracle. She dabs at her eyes and begins talking about how she will make the most of that time.

A customer service coordinator for the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, Wright along with her mom Amanda Wright, help with a local Girl Scout troop. The young mom enjoys taking adventure trips with her best friend and godchildren, and watching movies with Cambria. Mostly, she enjoys treating each day as a gift.

A graduate of Decatur Central High School and the University of Evansville, Wright is the only child of Amanda and Shawn Wright. A single mom, Wright had maintained her independence since the day she turned 18. Shortly after her daughter was born, she was wrapped up in life as a new mom and didn’t think much about a lingering cold and flu-like symptoms.

By mid-January of 2015 the symptoms were accompanied by extreme vaginal bleeding. When she broke down and called her mom, she was rushed by ambulance to Methodist Hospital where she was listed in critical condition in the cardiac intensive care unit. Tests determined she had acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in blood forming cells of the bone marrow. It’s called “acute” because it can progress quickly if not treated, and can be fatal in a few months.

Doctors at Methodist Hospital including pulmonologist Dr. Farzad Loghmani and oncology specialist Dr. El-Sayed Aly determined Wright had blood clots in her lungs, around my heart and bleeding behind her retinas. Wright spent the next 11 days in a medically-induced coma, strapped to a RotoProne bed – a special bed designed to help aggressively treat patients with severe pulmonary complications through prone therapy – turning her body face down to improve lung perfusion and oxygenation. In all, Wright spent a month in the hospital. She went through 24/7  chemotherapy and procedures to remove blood clots from her heart and lungs. She then went through two more rounds of chemotherapy and stem cell transplant. She lost her hair twice and dropped 80 pounds, when she was unable to eat for six weeks.

It wasn’t just her life that changed overnight. Wright’s parents moved her from her apartment into their home. Her mom quit her job to care for her and her parents sought custody of Wright’s daughter when she was in a coma, unsure if she would survive.  

“Because I was in the coma for so long I’d lost all muscle function. I couldn’t talk and I could barely move. I didn’t’ remember any pain but I also didn’t remember how to function. I had to learn to sit up, walk, talk and eat again,” said Wright. Until her leukemia diagnosis, she had seldom been ill. Her mom remembers only an exercise-induced asthma that caused a few setbacks in her childhood.

As she looks at her daughter and thinks about the time that has gone by, Wright says: “She sort of grew up here, coming to the hospital. I can’t say enough about my doctors. At one point I was told I only had about a 13 percent chance of survival. That is tough to hear but I also appreciated the honesty. It didn’t give me false hope but it gave me motivation.”

There was something else that motivated Wright too.

“When I was at my worst – not knowing if I’d ever go back to work or drive again, not knowing if I’d open my eyes from a coma, my daughter was my will to the fight.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
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 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.